A Woman in Assynt
Or, Make Achmelvich Great Again
I'll say this for the North Coast 500 - it's egalitarian. The beach car park at Achmelvich is a melting pot of British society. Pot-smoking weegies, paddleboard millennials, statement lesbians, Hugh Grants scraping dead insect off the bumpers of their Porsches, wasted teenagers revving Polos among alloyed Transporters and hired motorhomes - the drone flyers, the dog walkers, the disposable BBQ Bluetooth speaker crews, families with bucket 'n' spades and lads-on-tour with crates of tinnies. The bins are overflowing. It's lovely, but we need to get out.
Through the gate behind the campsite toilet block and up over tongues of rolling gneiss, the bustle of the beach subsides. Bog cottonheads lurch in the breeze. A cairned micro-summit gives view to the distinctive guano ledges of Creag Rodha Mor, louring in morning shade over the mouth of Loch Roe, and in the blue tiered distance the summits of Coigach, Fisherfield and Torridon. Down on the right at the edge of the sea, the tops of a series of sharply defined aretes catch the eye. This is the crag detailed shortly in the old Northern Highlands North guidebook as Clean Cut, the name as sharply truncated as the geometry of its rock.
We came here a month ago, half on a whim after a day's climbing at Rodha Mor, and were drawn in by the stunning arete of Flawless. From most angles it really does appear as named, but thankfully, from the perspective of those who are drawn to climbing such things, there are in fact irregularities enough for fingers and feet, and a bit of shallow protection. It was first climbed by Jules Lines in 2004, and as far as I know, has seen little attention since. Richie Betts climbed the upper arete on its left hand side in 2009, the easier and safer way, and over the years a few of the other obvious lines were climbed, mostly around the E3 mark, by usual suspects like Ian and Tess, Dave McGimpsey and Andy Nisbet. Around 2015, a giant block that had defined the lower halves of two of the existing routes just left of Flawless dropped off the cliff, which does make you thoughful about the surviving suspended blocks, particularly when you're standing on the ramp beneath them.
On our first visit in May we both managed a practised ascent of Flawless Left-hand. There is no question for me that this is less aesthetic than the original line up the right-hand side, but it is still outstanding arete climbing. You might wonder if the possibility of climbing on the left makes the original a bit eliminate, but in fact the lines diverge from a good foot ledge just over half height, and once started on either side you are committed - they are effectively different routes up the same feature, like Archangel and Don at Stanage. Flawless original looks scary and hard. Having eyeballed incredulously the middle pitch of Icon of Lust last week from the Pin belay, it's tempting to think that Jules is in a world of his own when it comes to bold slabs. Both Ferdia and Calum, who made a flying visit a few days after us, think that Flawless Left-hand is still worth E7 (I'm not so sure, on the basis that I don't think I can headpoint E7 as fast as I did this, or get away with sketching so badly), but it does make me wonder if the original is more like E8.
On the same day I also made a re-ascent of Calypso, the corner to the left which had lost the giant block, by climbing the lower arete of Flawless and falling sideways across the gap (Ferdia, who has functional hip joints, achieved this by bridging). It was hard to be sure how the lower part would feel ground-up because I'd practised it as part of Flawless, but the route, which it's tempting for the craic to call Collapso, is probably hard E4 or easy E5. The upper corner of this had appeared blank, but in fact relinquished a bombproof, hard-earned, small wire. After seeing this I remarked to Ferdia, "Makes me wonder if that big blank corner on the right has any gear?"
"Yeah, I was wondering that..."
Ferdia lowered in that afternoon, and as she climbed back up the corner on a tight rope, taking occasional rests and scanning for micro-wire slots, her smile got brighter. "Please don't blank out, this is perfect..."
Then we had to leave. I had to get back to Skye to guide the next day. Ferdia was already making plans to come back.
Fast forward a month, and the long Highland daylight is taking its toll on us, both easily unsettled sleepers. The now familiar delirium of midsummer camping, the chirrup and tweet of the dawn chorus like caffeine to the synapses. Ferdia has been back already, spending two days here alone, before rescuing me from Skye, where I'd become stranded with a broken-down van, and returning to Achmelvich.
I busy myself climbing other lines, existing and unclimbed, on a micro-traxion, while Ferdia refines her sequences, tests gear placements, and prepares herself mentally for the prospect of a lead. I hope the magic isn't gone, the thrill of new discovery dampened by dull weights of tiredness and familiarity. Being in the beach car park felt more strained than in May - a picnic table broken, scraps of litter in the dust. Toilet paper and crap in hollows overlooking that perfect white sand cove. I can't object in any fairminded way to anyone wanting to come to places like this, but I also can't help the feeling that a threshold of numbers overwhelms what makes them attractive in the first place. And I feel selfish and even elitist, but it seems like the whole conception of tourism or holidaying is too often wrong - an attitude of 'doing' this place or that, ticking it off and moving on, without ever having any meaningful engagement with any of it. But no one in particular is to blame, or we all are.
Occasional intrepids catch sight of us from the headland summit and come down to watch, but soon realise it's quite boring and move on.
And then, in the afternoon, Ferdia is ready to lead.
This is the most intense belay I have ever endured. I have not abseiled the line myself to inspect the gear, and although she feels the cluster below the crux at the top is adequate, I am not convinced. I have seen how much she fiddled, and know that the best pieces are not being pulled in the optimal direction. The rock is not beyond suspicion. Some of the climbing below is also hard and very poorly protected. Nightmare scenarios play across my mind's eye. My heart is hammering in my ribcage as she presses, smears and contorts higher and further from safety. I have a genuinely bad feeling. But beyond that, this part is not my story to tell, and I will leave it to the pieces captured on my camera.
Ferdia felt we could have done with fewer shots of thrift and waves, leaving more space on the memory card for the new route. What can I say?
As to the split grade - in short, she doesn't know. It's harder than bolder, and took more practice, than other E7s she's done (Skye Wall, Cwm Face, Free Stonehenge, etc). It's hard to imagine anyone on-sighting this. But E8 is a big number. Someone more experienced at the grades will have to go and enquire.
Neither of us has drawn much attention to the fact that this is possibly the hardest ever trad first ascent by a woman in the UK. This is partly because claims of firsts and bests tend to draw attention from the kind of person who might see in that missing chunk of video the latest iteration of Maestri/ Simpson/ Gaskins/ take your pick, and partly because Ferdia finds the grasping for accolades tacky and distracting. If true though, it's quite a startling fact. Ferdia is far from the strongest female climber around, though she is good at playing to her strengths and choosing her moments. This route suited her skillset perfectly: technical, bold, an inspiring line in a beautiful place. Trad climbing may still be male-dominated, but not nearly to the extent that new routing is. I'll leave it to the reader to ponder why that might be, but if it helps to inspire other women to tweak their perspective and discover the rewards of exploring the gaps between the known, perhaps it's worth a humble flag in the penultimate paragraph of this blog.
The next day, I led a couple of the lines I'd traxioned to give Mass Destruction (E2 6a) and Make Achmelvich Great Again (E5 6b), a neat little route up the leaning golden pillar opposite the main crag. As you'll see on the topo below, there are a few lines left to do here - some of these we top-roped but didn't lead, either because of worrying blocks or lack of time, but a couple are pleasant and not hard, and there to be picked off by whoever fancies them. Achmelvich is still great, really, and maybe if you're less of a solitude seeker than we are the beach bustle isn't so bad. It's not Bournemouth. It does have a chippy. And if it's all too much, the miniature Mingulay of Creag Rodha Mor is just across the loch, and you won't see many drone pilots over there.